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Let’s Stop Telling Cancer Patients How to Feel & What to Do!

Let’s stop telling cancer patients how to feel and what to do!

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it seems to me like there are way too many people telling cancer patients how to feel, how to act, how to do cancer and yes, how to do survivorship, too.

Do you remember when you were little and afraid of the dark?

Trust me. This is going somewhere.

Well, maybe you weren’t afraid of the dark, but many kids are. I vividly remember waking up one night and not being afraid of the dark, but rather being afraid of a strange and scary formation I saw at the top of the door frame in the corner of my bedroom where the walls met the ceiling. It was caused by some combination of darkness, moonlight, shadows, architecture and my imagination, of course.

One night, after lying there afraid for as long as I could stand it, I finally mustered up the courage to bolt out of my bed and raced into my parents’ bedroom. I hesitated to bolt because I was convinced whatever that thing was would surely grab me on my way out the door.

My parents probably said something like, there’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s only your imagination. Go back to bed.

Do you ever wonder how kids feel when they are afraid and then told, there’s nothing to fear? 

Talk about no validation. Just because someone tells you there’s nothing to be afraid of or that everything is fine, it doesn’t mean you stop being afraid.

It’s sort of the same deal with cancer, emphasis on sort of. You sometimes don’t get validation for your fear, your anger or whatever you might be feeling.

After a diagnosis, often times we are told via subtle or not so subtle messages how to feel and how to act. We’re not told to go back to bed, of course, but we are often told things like:

Be strong. Be brave. Stay positive. Be tough. Fight hard. Kick ass. Be a warrior. You get the idea…

Then all through treatment in addition to these suggestions for how to cope, we are told things like:

It’s only hair. It’ll grow back. You can do this. You can beat this. You’re only given what you can handle. There must be a lesson for you in this. You only have two rounds of chemo left. You’re almost done. You don’t look sick. Chemo’s not bad these days.

And if you’re lucky enough to wrap up treatment, there’s advice freely offered again on how to feel and what to do:

Don’t look back. Move on. Find your new normal. Let go of the past. You’re a better person now (if not, why not?) What did cancer teach you? Stop trying to rewind your life. Be grateful, you’re alive aren’t you? And the stunner to me, what gift did cancer give you?

I realize some cancer patients like hearing these kinds of things, which is fine. But many of us don’t.

Regardless, why is there this tendency in the first place to tell cancer patients how to feel or how to act?

I know it’s all about encouragement, but still…

Why not just allow for genuine-ness?

Why not stop trying to fix or make light of things?

Aren’t there other ways to encourage?

Do we tell people with other ailments the same kinds of things?

Do we tell folks with diabetes or heart disease to kick its ass or that they can beat it if they just stay positive?

Maybe, though if so, I don’t think it’s nearly as prevalent.

Does it matter?

I say no matter what struggle a person is dealing with, whether it’s the child who wakens in the night and is afraid of the dark, or whether it’s a cancer patient facing a whole heap of unknowns, it might be a good idea to stop telling them how to feel.

Listening, validating and allowing genuine feelings to be felt might be a better option.

Then the channels are opened up for offering some truly meaningful guidance and support.

So, yes, let’s stop telling cancer patients how to feel and what to do.

You might want to read, What does telling a cancer patient to just stay positive really mean?

Regarding your cancer experience (or your loved one’s), do you get sick of others telling you (or them) how to feel and what to do?

No matter where you are in your cancer experience, do you ever feel pressured to feel and/or act a certain way?

Do you want to read more articles like this one? Click Here.

let's stop telling #cancer patients how to feel #breastcancer #advocacy #keepingitreal



Thursday 24th of February 2022

Nancy, some people just cannot deal with suffering, so they cannot respond with any level of empathy and instead say things like “BEE happy”, “stay positive”, “don’t complain”, “cancer is a gift”, and other totally insensitive and inappropriate things. Those types of responses are all narcissists are capable of. When I hear those types of responses, I know who to stay away from. Imagine telling someone that your Mom is dying from cancer and hearing back, “well, be positive”, or “cancer was a gift to me”. Stay far away from people like that!


Friday 25th of February 2022

Mami, You might be right that some just cannot deal with suffering, therefore, cannot respond with empathy. Though I suspect there are a lot of people who truly don't know what to say. Which isn't much of an excuse either. Resorting to platitudes is easy, so... Good for you for staying away from those you say upsetting things to you. I appreciate you sharing. Thank you.


Sunday 27th of September 2020

Reading all of this is very therapeutic. I am three weeks into a breast cancer diagnosis and have already endured advice about treatment options (chop them off and be done with it), lots of "look at the bright side" comments (treatment is so much better now), and horror stories of other peoples' journeys (they died) that I am am no longer answering my phone. Thank goodness for texting. People seem to be less careless about what they say. I did send an e-mail to a few friends thanking them for their support and concern and welcoming them to contact me electronically. I added that I was happy to talk about anything (their lives etc) and that I was okay to talk about myself. I have told people that while I feel grateful for many things (their friendship, concern and caring) I do not feel fortunate and asked that they not expect that of me. I may have intimidated a few but telling people what I need makes feel a little bid more in control.


Monday 28th of September 2020

Laurie, I'm sorry you are dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, and I'm sorry you're getting some of "those comments" and some of that unsolicited advice. I hear you on the texting thing. Texting can be a godsend! Good for you for telling people what you need. That isn't always easy - especially early in the experience. I agree, doing so gives you a sense of being a bit more in control, for sure. Best wishes that things go as smoothly as possible for you from here on out. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment too.

Meredith Clark

Friday 28th of August 2020

I thought you would like it!


Tuesday 1st of September 2020

Meredith, You thought right.

Meredith Clark

Wednesday 26th of August 2020

I came across this quote in anther blog unrelated to cancer, and thought of US! "Always reach for the stars, because when you do, you and your motivational bullshit will be miles away from me".


Friday 28th of August 2020

Meredith, That's pretty good! Thank you for sharing!

Vickie McGaha

Tuesday 10th of March 2020

From the time I was diagnosed 11/2019, to this very day, I have felt like I am part of some bizarre contest on who can be the most positive, energetic, happy, just do it etc. I feel like a I made a mistake by telling close friends about it and some of them have disappeared totally. I understand that. Others call me at least once a week to pry details of what is going on. I say pry because I would prefer to say ok meeting goals etc. no matter how I try to distract I feel pressured to give in. That brings on a fresh round of things are so much better now than 10 years ago etc. I know I will never be open about it again. And for those I meet, I will listen and let them lead the discussion. If I have the energy, I will make them a treat of some kind.

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